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A Zulu president for the rainbow nation

Video by Nadia CHARBIT

Text by Guillaume GUGUEN

Latest update : 2009-05-10

Man of the People for some, incorrigible demagogue for others, South Africa's newly elected president Jacob Zuma fascinates and divides.The charismatic strongman’s shady past leaves many wondering whether he is fit to lead.

Insatiable womanizer, avid spender, incorrigible bragger… Those are the hardly flattering terms the South African media frequently use to describe Jacob Zuma, now the most powerful man in the country, if not the continent. After succeeding Thabo Mbeki at the head of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in December 2007, Zuma was almost certain to one day become the leader of the “rainbow nation”. This hasn’t shielded him from fierce criticism, including from members of his own party.

But Zuma wasn’t one to give up, even when faced with the harshest of attacks, both in the political and the judicial arenas. For many observers, his climb to the top is living proof of the man’s remarkable resilience.

Suspected of corruption, tax fraud and rape, Zuma is far from enjoying the saintly aura that surrounded South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela. On paper, “JZ”, as his fans like to call him, is hardly an obvious pick to lead a nation of 48 million citizens. In reality, he benefits from widespread support in the party’s popular and rural base, including the powerful Communist Party and the Cosatu trade union. For large swathes of the population, Zuma is a “man of the people”, one who never forgot his popular roots, despite his climb to the top.

A self-taught man in leopard skins

Born in 1942 in the Zulu province of Natal (eastern South Africa), Zuma never turned his back on his Zulu origins. He wouldn’t shy away from appearing at traditional ceremonies scantly clad in leopard skins, under the part-amused, part-embarrassed gaze of the South African intelligentsia. A self-taught man, “Msholozi” (Zuma’s tribal name) cares little about the approval of his country’s upper crust.

Zuma joined the ranks of clandestine anti-apartheid fighters aged 17. He had had no schooling before that, and could neither read nor write. He then joined the ANC’s military branch, Umkhonto we Sizwe, until he was captured in 1963 and sentenced to ten years in prison. He joined Nelson Mandela in the Robben Island penitentiary. At his side, he learned to read and write, and developed his debating skills and fiery rhetoric. A political star was born.


After several years in exile (Swaziland, Zambia), the former inmate returned to South Africa in 1990, by which time the ANC had become a legitimate political party. Henceforth began an almost flawless climb to the top job of what would come to be the country’s most powerful political entity. Named vice-secretary general of the party in 1991, he became Thabo Mbeki’s deputy president eight years later. But soon enough, ghosts from his turbulent past came back to haunt him.

Four women, 18 children…

On December 6, 2005, Zuma was indicted for the rape of a 31-year-old HIV-positive woman. He drew international mockery and contempt when he claimed, in his defence, that he took a shower afterwards to avoid contracting the virus. Zuma was later acquitted, but the press has since been full of stories of his explosive relations with women. Like any “real Zulu”, Zuma is polygamous, reportedly counting 4 wives and no less than 18 children.

But the deputy president’s reputation was tarnished by various corruption scandals even more than by his sultry sex life. Seven months after Zuma’s own rape trial, his chief financial counsellor was sentenced to 15 years in prison for corruption and bribery. The businessman allegedly served as a go-between between the French arms manufacturer Thales and Zuma himself. Following the verdict, Mbeki fired Zuma from his post.


But JZ never lost the support of the party’s base. Many claim that the financial imbroglio surrounding him was merely a plot by Mbeki supporters attempting to oust him from the political scene. All corruption charges against Zuma have since been dropped, and the ANC leader is now more popular than ever in his country. Without a clear and coherent platform, Zuma owes his election to his charisma rather than his policies. The newly elected president of the richest country in the African country faces a tough challenge to prove he’s up to the job. And the public may yet prove tougher than any judge or jury.


Date created : 2009-04-25